Functional Training
for the Torso

Gray Cook, MSPT, CSCS
and Keith Fields, MS, CSCS
Orthopedic & Sports Therapy
Danville, Virginia


    The Strength Coach has many options when developing a strength and conditioning program for the trunk or torso. Some professionals use straight bar activities such as the deadlift, squat, good morning, and push press: others use supplementary work such as Roman chair extensions and sit-ups with rotations.

     All of these exercises should have a positive effect on trunk strength. However, most should be considered as general strength and conditioning exercises. They are specific to the torso, but they are nonspecific for sport skills since they seem to isolate certain movements.

     Movements occur through sequentially coordinated muscle contractions. These sequential steps are often referred to as the kinetic chain, the linking of complementary movements that culminate in gross motion and thus allow for skill performance.

     This article will provide the strength and conditioning specialist with an introduction to functional exercise for the torso. Functional exercise becomes essential when the athlete has gained in torso strength but needs some form of transitional work to help with the speed power, and coordination needed for his or her sport.

     It is important to simulate the movements and posture encountered in a sport while increasing the speed and efficiency of those movements. Tippett and Voight (5) indicate that determining sport-specific function requires addressing the athlete's sport-specific skills. The goal is to transfer the gains in torso strength observed in the weight room to specific gains in power that can impact athletic performance.

     The trunk is used in sports as a rigid and stable segment to dissipate force or transfer energy. Yet it must maintain a balance of flexibility to adapt to situations and avoid injury. Therefore, stability and mobility go hand in hand to yield movements that are multiplanar.

     The plyometric speed drills often used by sprinters are an example of functional exercise. In the off-season a sprinter may use the squat, lunge, and other weight training exercise to develop good basic hip and leg strength. In the preseason he or she is progressed from low level to high level plyometrics. Plyometrics play an important role in speed-strength sports (1).

     Other sport-specific training is used to improve coordination, speed of movement, and technique. An important and often overlooked movement in standard weight training programs is torso rotation (1.)

     During the preseason, athletes all too often perform sport-specific or functional training for the upper and lower extremities, yet at the same time they continue with general nonspecific torso training, as in traditional abdominal training.

     The general strengthening program for the torso will usually employ single movements such as flexion, extension, and side bending. When developing a sport-specific program, it is important to combine relevant movements with resistance through appropriate ranges of motion. (1.)

     Almost all sports involve activity in three planes of motion. Isolation and nonspecific exercises usually involve one or two planes of motion.

     The three planes of motion are as follows: (a) frontal movements, which involve lateral flexion or bending to the left and right side: (b) sagittal movements, which involve flexion and extension of the trunk in forward and backward movement: and (c) transverse movements, which involve rotation or twisting to the left and right (2).

     These three planes of movement should be addressed as integrated rather than isolated movements, with each serving to complement the other. The integration of these movements produces motion through the kinetic chain.

     Side bending occurs in all these motions: it can either be in the same direction as or the opposite direction from rotation. The four movements identified in Figure 1 indicate the most common combinations of side bending and rotation.


     Voight and Cook (6) indicate that multiplanar exercise can be used as a progression from uniplanar exercise by combing the PNF chop and lift patterns. The chop and lift are derived from a science of exercise called proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF).

     Proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation describes how some physical therapists and strength coaches look at human movement. Optimum performance can be gained when muscles are used to complement each other to create unified movements.

     The strength coach often uses special exercises to get these muscles to work together automatically. It is not always strength, but rather coordination that will yield effective and efficient movement, as exemplified in the following:

  • The punch or kick of a martial arts athlete
  • The effortless leap of a high jumper
  • A tennis player's perfectly timed ground stroke performed while sliding on clay

     Conventional models of motor learning focus on a preliminary analysis of skill learning that is a continual process. In other words, the learner passes through essential phases of learning -- cognitive, associative, and autonomous -- in which attentional requirements are progressively reduced.

     Schmidt proposes through the Schema Theory that skill learning is a process of recall an recognition (4). He says schema learning occurs as the motor program stores information such as body position, skill parameters, accuracy, and sensory input (how the movement felt, looked, sounded). PNF places the body in these functional positions that represent sport skill movements. This multiplanar movement also helps maximize sensory input.

     Once a task is identified, the brain combines different motions to form a mass movement. With practice this movement becomes more refined. Eventually, practice can help a once deliberate and choppy movement become automatic and simple.

    For example, picture a young basketball player: Once upon a time the lay-up shot required concentration and effort. Now, after years of practice and many games later, the player no longer "thinks" his or her way through the shot but simply thinks "lay-up" and the automatic program takes over.

     Like the analogy of learning the lay-up, PNF exercise allows the automatic program to develop faster than do conventional weight training methods that focus on isolation training.

     Weight shifting, coordination, acceleration, and deceleration must be addressed not individually but in a harmonious blend. The brain begins to recognize the basic movement patterns and "eases" the body into performing them with increased efficiency. Once the brain is comfortable with the basic patterns, the learning time for sports movement is greatly reduced.

    As stated by Voss et al. (7):

     "The mass movement patterns of facilitation are spiral and diagonal in character and closely resemble the movements used in sports and work activities. The spiral and diagonal character is in keeping with the spiral and rotatory characteristics of the skeletal system of bones and joints and the ligamentous structures. This type of motion is also in harmony with the topographical alignment of the muscles from origin to insertion and with the structural characteristics of the individual muscles." (p.1).

Next subject in outline